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As Television Changed - Forever
By Warren Chaney, Ph.D.

 During the mid-1960s I wrote, produced and performed in a weekly one-hour television broadcast series titled, MAGIC MANSION. It ran for two seasons and was broadcast live from an AFRTS network studio on Okinawa. What was remarkable is that the series while barely two seasons long, produced over a 100 episodes and led in television’s transition from live broadcasts to the newly emerging advent of videotape.

  There are times when one is young that history moves through your life and you are unaware that it happened. Such was the case in October of 2010 when I was sent an article from The Television Journal (Television in Transition), which discussed of all things, this television sitcom from my past. I was surprised when the journal article described the show as transitional and transformative. If that was the case, it sure had me fooled.

  MAGIC MANSION was a weekly sitcom filmed for the then, Armed Forces Radio Television Service better known as the AFRTS Network.  It has since changed its name to the American Forces Radio Television Service. I suspect they feel that moniker is the more politically correct.  


The program’s broadcast title card used for the show’s opening
The program’s broadcast title card used for the show’s opening
  By any name, AFRTS was huge and covered many continents. It broadcast wherever troops were stationed. The giant network carried many of the U.S. stateside commercial programs but also developed its own programming.  Broadcast journalists trained at military posts were sent into the field to gather news and convey it to the troops. One would think that being military the news would be slanted. Perhaps it was, yet in my years of    observation I never saw a right or left     leaning. It was always professional and well delivered, a model I have often felt today’s news anchors could benefit from

  Entertainment programming such as Command Performance had brought Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope to soldiers and their families stationed at military outposts across the world. True Boardman and Jerome Lawrence created the armed forces 30-minute program, MAIL CALL with equally famous celebrities and entertainers. In 1965, The Department of Defense had established a broadcast training center at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. It trained military broadcast students for worldwide AFRTS assignments. During the same year, AFRTS began broadcasts in South Vietnam as the AFVN or American Forces Vietnam Network. Into this setting, my humble efforts began not in Vietnam but on the tiny island country of Okinawa.

  Missing from AFRTS programming were shows for kids and there were scores of children accompanying parents in countless overseas assignments from Okinawa to Germany and from Korea to Japan, France and Austria.  To begin with, I was a ventriloquist and magician. I began as a child and worked my way through college, earning money to pay my way. I found performing immensely more profitable than pumping gas and cleaning windshields
(this was in the days when stations still did that).
 Military pay was low, even if you were an officer so whenever I could work a “gig”, I did so. Once – as a lark, I entered the Army talent show…and won. Since I was a 1st Lieutenant, I was selected to be a Company Commander of an “All Army” talent show that toured many of the world’s U.S. troop locations including Viet Nam, Guam, Iwo Jima, Japan, Thailand and Okinawa. It was on Okinawa that I was asked to develop a kid’s program for a network broadcast. It was there that MAGIC MANSION was born.

Clowns, a magician, assistants and two Clowns, a magician, assistants and two dummies made up the cast

  MAGIC MANSION was a sitcom for children although it quickly drew an adult and family audience. Its setting was an old mansion – magical in nature – which housed a magician, his assistants and a series of ventriloquist figures. Accompanying them was a host of odd characters ranging from a clown and genii to a Frankenstein Monster and musical leprechaun. This was just before two other sitcoms in the continental U.S. (The Munsters and Addams Family) made their debut. I was stationed overseas and unaware of their existence. Years later when I learned of the shows I remember thinking that it was apparently the time for a family of magicians, creatures and critters. Back then most shows opened with Title Cards. It was remarkable that the cards used for all three shows were so similar.

Magic Mansion’s two clowns – just after a live broadcast and set collapse
Magic Mansion’s two clowns – just after a live broadcast and set collapse

  Unlike the higher budget programming from commercial networks, our broadcast budget was small by comparison. We had only $25,000 per episode. As with the majority of programs, MAGIC MANSION was broadcast in glorious black and white. The big difference between this production and the commercial ones was that this one was live. Videotape was nonexistent for practical purposes.     On April 14, 1956, the first Quadruplex recording machines were introduced by Ampex. There were no freeze frames, no search features and the tapes required playing on special hand-made videotape heads. The 1” tape would not appear on the scene until 1976. Only the CBS, NBC or ABC shows such as I Love Lucy or the Danny Thomas Show were filmed in 16mm and edited for rebroadcast much as one might do a movie. Our show was in real time and with live broadcasts before a live audience. With it came all of the heart pounding excitement one would expect from on-air emergencies. Once, an entire set collapsed on the show’s clowns. As I recall the clowns had stolen into a witch’s lair and had just uttered the lines, “Nothing to worry about here!”

 The show aired every Saturday morning at 10 AM. I was never been told that one only did 24 to 32 broadcasts a year. I never new any better, so I wrote for 50 shows, rehearsed for 50 and broadcast the same number. Only later did I realize that we did more shows in two seasons than regular productions did in five.

This skit was about “Danny O’Kay’s” induction into the military. For a change, I was not the magician but the induction officer. My assistant, Harriett Zorich checks Danny’s pulse and I suspect – gets it racing a bit.

   As I was saying, unless you filmed in 16mm, most shows were live. The first Quadruplex videotape machines had been introduced by Ampex in 1956. It was better that the earlier tape from Bing Crosby’s electronic division but still, none too good. You could not freeze pictures and there was no search feature. The tapes had to be played on hand-made tape heads, which made it inefficient and cost ineffective.

  What AFRTS lacked in production dollars, it made up for in locations and air transportation. Securing a 16mm Army camera, we filmed footage in locations like Thailand, the Philippines and even India. No sound of course, but wonderful stuff, nonetheless. With Viet Nam on going, Okinawa became a stop off for famous personalities on their way to entertain the troops in the war zones. Since our show was Armed Forces sponsored, I could get celebrities like Bob Hope, Guy Mitchell, and Patti Page on the air. Famous ventriloquist Peter Rich, made a stop as did world-renowned magician, Tony Slydini. John Wayne made an appearance when he was scouting the Ryukyus and Philippines looking for shooting locations for his Viet Nam war pic, The Green Berets.

  The stories for MAGIC MANSION centered around the magician and one or more of his ventriloquist figures. Taking a cue from classic radio’s Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy show, our “dummies” were treated as real kids. Children watching new better of course, but enjoyed the illusion nonetheless.

  Some of the best woodworkers I ever saw were Okinawan and we employed our share. Week after week, they turned out wonderful magic and illusions for the show. I would draw up the magic plans on a Sunday evening and or production manager, Mr. Miyamoto Matsuyama had it finished by show time (the paint drying as we performed). Scheduling was tough since I had other Army Captain military duties. Still – not knowing any better we made it work. I would write the script for the following week right after the Saturday broadcast and get it to the cast by Tuesday. We would do a run through on a Friday and show up early Saturday morning for a dress rehearsal prior to broadcast. If I said everything went smooth, that would be untrue. We had more than our share of on-set disasters from props not working to guests forgetting their lines. However, we persevered…and everyone covered for each other.

PFC David Kerne was the musical Leprechaun for the show and when Christmas arrived, became Santa Claus to the delight of the kids and our live family audience.
  Looking back, I was blessed with a boatload of talent for the show. Jerry Jacobson was our first clown and without exception, the best I ever knew. We named him Lounsberry and he was fantastic. He had been drafted into the Army right out of the Barnum and Bailey circus. Nothing could go wrong that he could not cover.  

  Another Army Captain, Earle Klay, worked the show with me. He was a wonderfully brilliant man and every week he would don laborious makeup to play a Frankenstein type monster named Rathmore. Earle was a nice guy and somewhat on the shy side. He did a terrific job but having to be “out there” had to be hard on his personality. An Army physician, Captain Vince Rizutto joined the show and became our in-resident Genii and about any other role, we could come up with.

One of our off-show performances was set at a camp for children who were hearing disabled.

  Harriett Zorich was the magician’s in resident assistant and much better organized than the rest of us. She was delightful to work with, the kids loved her and it did not hurt that she was easy on the eyes. She had been classically trained on the piano, had been a concert performer and was classy. Somehow, I felt that deep down she always wondered what she was dong – doing these shows.  She was an Army nurse and frequently became the set’s first aid personnel.

  Private David Kerne has played our Leprechaun with the invisible band and at Christmas time, moonlighted as our Santa Claus.

  The show caught on almost at once and suddenly we had additional demand placed on our time. Personal appearances were desired and being the Army, required. Since I was the MAGIC MANSION magician and ventriloquist, performing was in. Not that this was bad since I could “moonlight” at the Officer and NCO clubs. Soon, I discovered I was doing much better financially that from my military pay. The downside was that I could not go anywhere the shows were playing and go unrecognized. I was not used to that and found it unsettling. I am sure that it influenced my decision to enter the film industry and a writer/director later on.

  The live weekly broadcasts before a live studio audience led to traveling live performances for publicity and audience goodwill purposes. There were no Neilson or Hooper ratings for AFRTS productions so we never knew our viewing audience size.

  However, the day it hit me that we might have something was in December of 1966. We were asked to produce a Magic Mansion Christmas show at a large military base field house. Expecting about 500 children, we were stunned to have over 4,000.

We figured the show was doing well when an expected live audience of 500 grew to over 4,000.

  What I never realized at the time was that MAGIC MANSION had become a transitional television show. It was in with the last of the hot light, live audience and live performance television shows. Videotape was on the way. In 1969, Sony introduced a prototype for the first widespread videocassette, the 3/4" (1.905 cm) composite U-matic system. Few shows used it commercial or otherwise but we were selected – and use it we did. It did not have the editing capability that later came with videotape but it did remove the pressure of performing a live broadcast. Even better, it permitted a show to record its productions for rebroadcast and performance purposes. Of the 120 some odd shows that MAGIC MANSION did, only a few survived. At the end of ’69, I received orders transferring me to another assignment in the states. So, in late October of that year, the lights went off and MAGIC MANSION shut its doors.

I have no recollection of ever being this young!

   Everything changed after that. Laugh tracks would replace studio audiences and the seasonal broadcasts would eventually drop to a fraction of what had been expected of us. Afterwards, the broadcasts were cleverly edited into flawless performances and AFRTS changed its name. The mammoth network transformed from the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service into the American Forces Radio and Television Service. It was more politically correct I suspect. Then – in September of 1971, after working out all of the industry standards with other manufacturers, Sony refined its early videotape into its Broadcast Video U-matic or BVU. Television would never be the same – ever again.

 MAGIC MANSION was quite a ride and one that would – two decades later – lead me into a 25—year career in motion picture and television work…but never again as a performer!